2020What design can do during an era of change
Focused Issues Directors’ Symposium

What is good design? Examining the role of design in tackling today’s social issues

Taisuke Shimanuki
Takayuki Imai
Tomoyuki Miyahara(CINRA)

Founded in 1957, the Good Design Award has evaluated and awarded outstanding designs and design-related initiatives at home and abroad. As well as physical, shaped objects, the award system has recently started appraising tangible and intangible design-related concepts as well, such as local initiatives, web services, and educational systems. Over the course of more than half a century, the Good Design Award is gradually changing.
One such change is “Focused Issues,” an initiative started in 2015. While design trends have been rapidly expanding and diversifying in recent years, the directors of Focused Issues examine the direction of current design under their respective themes, and make proposals on the role of design in solving social problems.
This year, Yuki Uchida, Yasuyuki Kawanishi, Yuma Harada, Kaie Murakami, and Yoshihiko Yamasaka have been appointed as the directors of “Focused Issues.” Here, the five discuss the Good Design Award screening event from their respective perspectives. After a three-day screening, we interviewed the five About the future of the Good Design Award and Focused Issues.

From left: Seiichi Saito (Vice Chair), Takashi Ashitomi (Chair), Yuki Uchida, Yasuyuki Kawanishi, Yuma Harada, Kaie Murakami, Yoshihiko Yamasaka

Excellent design showing the new direction of the world

Focused Issues aims to identify the challenges and potentials for the new society, as well as to define the key areas for design to address. How do the five directors of Focused Issues sum up the screening event?

MurakamiBecause of how the situation has developed this year, we tend to turn our attention to the coronavirus crisis. However, we still have to address the impact of climate change and environmental problems seriously. We cannot afford to pass these problems on to the next generation.

Kaie Murakami

Murakami In light of that, I participated in this year’s screening, with the theme of “Design for improving the environment.” Compared to last year, there were more products designed with a genuine intention to be implemented in society, which I think is a good sign. At the same time, we the designer side need to consider how we can raise awareness in line with this trend.

MurakamiGoing beyond just reducing packaging waste, they also show their corporate stance by using LOOP as the infrastructure, which can encourage more people to support them, and thus generate more profit for the manufacturer.

Many people still think that “environmental problems” are for those who are particularly “conscious.” However, some manufacturers that handle fairly large-scale consumer products are now using LOOP, which suggests that it has a good chance to become popular in society. I felt that times were finally changing, as I believe that LOOP’s launch in Japan itself is sending a strong message.

The venue of the “Good Design Award 2020” screening

The concept of manufacturers and designs showing the potential future of society can be linked to the theme set up by creative director Yoshihiko Yamasaka: “Design serving as a guidepost pointing the way to a new society.”

YamasakaI feel that the power of design to direct the world is increasingly put to the test. What we need to keep in mind is that the world, the public, and mass opinion tend to go along with the majority.

Yoshihiko Yamasaka

YamasakaAs well as major initiatives, small products that help increasing awareness on a personal level or in niche areas are also important. I think that one of the new roles of design is to put together the respective influences of these products, and disseminate them in society.

Multiple perspectives that reimagine design—this is where new developments are revealed

Yuma Harada, an art director/designer, looks back on the screening as follows.

HaradaWhile my theme was “Design for creating faraway places to stay,” the screening this year has reaffirmed how I’m fascinated by motifs like “others” or “strangers.” With a background like that, I found it increasingly hard to evaluate only within each unit (the subject entries are screened after being divided into domains).

Yuma Harada

HaradaI believe that Focused Issues itself is an initiative for solving such problems in the screening, as it is a cross-functional process for joining each genre together. I felt that a lot of entries in the last few years already have cross-functionality in their own, transcending genres.


HaradaLooking at the recent advances in digital technology, I can sort of imagine that artificial intelligence technology will one day be incorporated with initiatives like “Mi-Chan’s Sweets Workshop.” However, I have not yet seen anything that really intrigues me. I think that it is necessary for Focused Issues to address such changes in the future.

A scene from the screening event. The works are evaluated from an iPad and the actual items on display.

In contrast to Yuma Harada, Yasuyuki Kawanishi, who engages in large-scale product design focused mainly on railways, has set up a unique theme: “Design for expanding relationships.”

KawanishiGoals that are often talked About these days, such as creating a better future by sharing knowledge and technology, or expanding networks to solve problems, are also shared across the Good Design Award. This mindset can be seen in this year’s Best 100 (100 designs that are highly rated by the Judging Committee, selected from among all the award-winning objects) as well, and I feel that there are probably two major trends at work there.

Yasuyuki Kawanishi

KawanishiThe first is product and system development with an astonishingly high degree of perfection. This is an update of the conventional way of doing things. The second is creation with the idea of how the future is expected to be, even though there may still be some uncertainties. I would say that this year’s Best 100 combines these two trends in equal measure.

The Best 100 being reviewed from multiple perspectives

KawanishiHowever, if I may say so, I think we should be a little more cautious when interpreting the word “expansion.” For example, initiatives like “Mi-Chan’s Sweets Workshop” that was picked by Mr. Harada, should be expanded proactively, and to put it more bluntly, I would like to see more cases “copying” this kind of approach in a positive way. In reality though, countless products simply rehash existing ones. We need to identify the difference between these.

In fact, the judges often compared this year’s Best 100 entries with the last year’s at the screening event.

KawanishiThis is discussed in many other fora apart from the Good Design Award as well, and the same goes for the transportation area I’m involved in. It could even be said that “all vehicles are ultimately the same, aren’t they?”

Having said that, it is very hard to make any assessment here, as ready-made products do have established values. It will be necessary to discuss more About the new trends that have emerged in the Best 100 this year.

On another front, Yuki Uchida offers a unique perspective through her theme: “Design for weaving systems together.”

UchidaThe background to this theme was the emerging shared awareness that what were previously assumed to be part of society, such as “the way we learn,” “the way we produce goods,” and “the way we think About environment and sustainability,” had started to crumble. The social changes caused by the coronavirus crisis have highlighted it even more. I would like to explore what we should rework as the “new system” of the future.

Yuki Uchida

UchidaLooking back on the screening this year from that perspective, I think it was where the stirrings of major change were felt, even though it is still a work in progress and incomplete. “Weaving systems together” is a very complex process that cannot be done overnight, as you need to untangle the existing systems, then construct new ones. I would like Focused Issues to serve as a place to examine this.

Award winning objects related to the theme “Design for weaving systems together”

Discover initiatives for changing the world, and deliver them to the future

This concept of “rearranging systems” was often discussed in the screening process of the Best 100.

HaradaWe need to be aware of how the production method itself is changing. “BRING” is a good example of that, and I think this kind of approach will become more widespread.

YamasakaIn the past, many Japanese companies typically had a “do it all by ourselves” stance. But a new trend is emerging where they cooperate with others to achieve their shared goals, banding together in a joint effort to solve problems. This can be seen in both corporations and individuals.

Yoshihiko Yamasaka

Let’s take Toyota “Harrier” as one characteristic example. Teaming up with small and medium-sized companies that have only a small number of employees, one of Japan’s leading companies has developed a new car, and it is delivering results in terms of sales. Examples like this are emerging in the automobile industry, which is typically known for being very traditional.

KawanishiThey want to fix the stagnation in every industry. But it’s not easy to break up conventional systems. So, an attempt to rearrange the pyramid structure as seen in “Harrier” is an example of showcasing future potential.

UchidaWhile there are of course some examples that precede it in some industries and countries, these kinds of projects are now emerging in multiple industries in Japan too.

KawanishiAnother significant example is the renewal of “Shibuya Parco.” The commercial facility sector is a prime example of a business model where they maximize profits by making the most of the commercial floor space. PARCO’s effort to create holistic value and pursue sustainability while including that much common space in the building is a huge shift from the conventional model.

While discussions were often heated at the screening event, it was evident that there were many works other than the Best 100 that clearly embodied the spirit of the times. It does not look like this trend will end anytime soon.

HaradaI think change can be seen in the Good Design Award itself. Last year, in 2019, the “Rapid Diagnostic Kit for Tuberculosis” won the Good Design Award. In 2018, the year before, the award went to “Temple Activities for Solving Poverty Problems [Otera Oyatsu Club],” which is very interesting in itself.

G Mark validates the products as being classic and sophisticated. Indeed, the Good Design Award still evokes the image of iconic products of the era by Japan’s leading designers, displayed by genre. However, many of the award-winning works in recent years do not fit into this category.

HaradaI always feel some doubt whenever I participate in this kind of screening. The award-winning products and initiatives were highly rated in the screening process, but I wonder if they will continue to grow and keep their significance afterwards.
As for “Otera Oyatsu Club,” because I’m involved in child welfare works as well, I’m often reminded of the implication of this initiative, in many situations. I felt that what was demonstrated by “Otera Oyatsu Club” had constantly been changing and propagating elsewhere.
That is what I think the significance of the Good Design Award should be in the future. Discover initiatives that are just one step away from being disseminated in society, properly evaluate them, then deliver them to the future.

MurakamiI think that the Good Design Award is still seen by society as an event where you can see “lots of cool-looking stuff.” However, when you look at the award-winning objects, we are getting more works with no form, something that you can’t see just by glancing at the photos. There is something like a design thinking approach concealed within these works, from which you can understand their philosophy and fragments of the society they want to create.

KawanishiWe have to interpret that as the judges, and that’s also our responsibility as designers.

Intently listening to a lecture on award-winning objects during the screening event

YamasakaAs the Internet has become widespread, we can now visualize the feasibility and spreadability of an idea. Still, even if it looks stunning at the time, if it isn’t designed to stay useful for the next generation, it will get stuck somewhere.

UchidaIn that respect, many of the projects this year were by creators who used to work for corporations and then spun out to the outside world. It felt like the revitalization of technology and human mobility was a reaction to the aged and entrenched atmosphere of Japan today.

Yuki Uchida

HaradaI don’t think that’s unique to Japan. Take “Romantic Route 3 Art Festival,” an art festival that took place in Taiwan, for example. I’m pretty sure this was inspired by the Setouchi Triennale and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, but as they augmented the foundational initiatives with Taiwan’s unique history and contexts, it turned out to be completely different from the sources of inspiration, which I thought was a very interesting case.

Questioning the prime duty of the Good Design Award

By its nature, the Good Design Award is often associated with an “authoritative” image. Spotting products made by leading companies among the display of the Best 100 works, most people probably brush aside the details of the evaluations, assuming; “It’s no surprise when they can afford the best quality and design.”
However, at the actual screening event, you can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of each entry; the story behind it; and the doubts the creator or the company itself had, which tells you how the work was created through much trial and error.

UchidaIt was my first screening this year, but I had never thought that I would see such unique backgrounds during the Best 100 selection process.

MurakamiAwards can often be seen as somewhat authoritative. I reckon that quite a few people regard a product cynically as soon as it’s labelled with a G mark.
With the judges offering their respective design insights from different standpoints, today’s screening event was excellent. I hope that these design insights will shine through the Good Design Award to reverse entrenched perceptions.

Kaie Murakami

KawanishiWhat are the key elements of selecting a work as a good design? Perhaps that one should be selected too, if this one is? We spent three full days debating these questions. It’s tough for us to select too.
This sentiment is reflected in the “supportive comments” from the judges to each creator, which are given privately. In a nutshell, it’s feedback saying “You were almost there; here are key points to work on for next time.” I believe this is the essence of the Good Design Award.

HaradaI think the role of the Good Design Award is to show the direction for further improvement, rather than to authorize the award. Many of the creators must think “It would get us a step further if we could do this.” But they give up because of the various rules and restrictions. That’s why I want to offer them support, to tell them that they can “go that far.”

Yuma Harada

UchidaThrough participating in the screening this year, I became keenly aware that it is one of the roles of the Good Design Award to give creators a supportive push.

KawanishiAward selection is important, but support for those who weren’t selected is also included in the Good Design Award. Essentially everything is obscure until the results are announced, and there is a restriction on what we can communicate with the applicants as well.
But actually, there is more we want to say. Just like our initiatives with Focused Issues, I would like to explore the structures and designs for reforming the Good Design Award itself.

Yasuyuki Kawanishi

HaradaI suppose the Good Design Award used to be authoritative, or rather something close to safety standards. Now, I would like it to go beyond that and become more approachable, so that they can turn the users into fans of the products or initiatives. It would be great if all of us including the judges could discuss how we can create such an environment.

YamasakaHow can we update the meaning of the "good" of the Good Design Award? I believe it is another duty of Focussed Issues to examine this.

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